How to grow your career when your boss gets fired

When your boss is on his way out, it is time for you to turn lemons into lemonade.
When your boss is on his way out, it is time for you to turn lemons into lemonade.
Image: RREUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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When Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, was fired by President Donald Trump, I could identify. Not with Mr. Tillerson, but with his staff. My boss was let go, too—twice. That is, the same boss, two times.

When it happened the first time, I was three years into my first job out of college. Both my manager and I had risen the ranks in our time there—me from a specialist to a senior specialist in PR, and he from manager of PR to director of corporate communications.

Over time, his ambitions didn’t mesh with the organization’s. On paper, he was doing his duty—showing up on time, ticking off bullets in his job description, and even coming in on weekends to catch up when there was a big project. But he also spent a lot of energy doing what he called “empire-building”—poaching people from other teams in an effort to make his role more influential.

So when I sent him an email at 8:05 a.m. and got the bounce-back saying “He is no longer with the company,” I was startled but not surprised. What did surprise me was when I started receiving emails from people all across the company with conflicting sentiments like “wow I bet you’re glad he’s gone” and “that’s too bad; I really liked working with him.”

I didn’t know what had gone down. My thoughts swirled: Was this a layoff? Was I next? Did he do something illegal? Did I assist unknowingly? I decided the best course of action was to lay low before I had the facts, so I didn’t unnecessarily amplify a sensitive situation.

Then my inbox pinged with another email, this one from a friend in a different department who was well-respected in the company.

“I wonder what’s going to happen to your role and the team.”

It was this single line that made me realize that the gap left behind by my manager mattered to my future. It was up to me to be proactive before office politics took over. Four years and two manager-firings later, I developed my “How to grow your career when your boss gets canned” guide:

Step 1: Step out and up

My new manager had just doubled her work load in one morning.

So the next day, in our regular trip to the company salad bar for lunch, I asked her what I could do to help. She ticked through a laundry list of items that he’d been working on, and we prioritized them together. I took one of the projects on. I had more growth potential now. It was just up to me to take it.

Step 2: Take stock of your network–empathizers, meddlers, connivers and advocates

Fair or not, the organization chart was now the enemy. That little line that previously connected me to my now jobless manager meant that I was forever associated with him and what people thought, good and bad.

I learned that it’s best to assess your own personal network to move forward. I found that people typically fall into one of four groups—empathizer, meddler, conniver and advocate. Empathizers have your back but aren’t good for much else. Meddlers use rumors to fill in missing facts and get in your way of a clean slate. Connivers are strategists with egos, making power-grabs, and often behind the scenes.

Advocates proved most critical for me, especially within the leadership ranks across the organization. I was an orphan of the org chart, so I pinpointed those who I knew would stand up for me and the quality of my work. By reinforcing these relationships, I stayed in the know and accessed more high-profile projects.

Step 3: Be kind

No matter if your boss was your best mentor or if you were glad to see him go, he’s still a person who probably didn’t plan on getting fired. He likely also has other responsibilities outside of work that will now be made more difficult–ailing parents, college debt, or in my case, a wife and kids, for whom he provided the main source of income. It’s not appropriate in all cases, especially in criminal situations, but consider staying in touch and helping him find the next gig.

When my boss was walked out, I didn’t plan to speak to him again. I thought he had deserved the criticism he got, and while I didn’t want him to be terminated, the situation seemed to be working out in my favor. I was climbing a few rungs on the ladder, and I was doing it without him.

Soon, I got a LinkedIn message. He had taken a new job at a local software company—and he wanted me to help him build his team. After weighing the options, I chose my old manager and a new job.

Step 4: Know your loyalty line

Six months into the gig, I was doing my best work with the best people—except for my boss.

It started in one of our one-on-one meetings. He didn’t like the direction of the company, and used some choice words to blame the CEO, despite having no apparent evidence other than his suspicions. I thought he was having a bad day until he carried this toxicity into our next team meeting. I could manage to contain the situation before, but now I had to defend against his posturing within my own team.

He had hired me, but that wasn’t a binding contract for loyalty. If anything, he was the one who broke it when he went rogue. So when I was asked what I thought about him as a manager, I thought of my own credibility and morals. I thought of my responsibility to my team to do the right thing. I told the truth. And for a second time, he was fired.

Kaitlin McCready is a communications and organizational design consultant and writer.